Like many synagogues around the world, my synagogue in Hoboken is adorned with the most famous words from this week’s Torah portion of Balak. Painted on the walls of our lobby are the words “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha yisrael.” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” This verse is also among the first words uttered in every morning’s synagogue service, based on a long-standing tradition of identifying the “tents” in the verse with the synagogues constructed by the Jewish people in all our communities.
This famous verse, however, raises an uncomfortable question. When we read these words in their context in this week’s Torah portion, we see that they are uttered by Balaam, the sorcerer who was hired by the Moabite king to curse the Israelites. Balaam is powerless to deliver a curse that goes against God’s wishes, however, and he finds that his intended curses are transformed into blessings. Balaam is reckoned among the arch-enemies of the Israelites. It is peculiar, and even disturbing, that words uttered by a would-be destroyer of our people are accorded such honor, adorning so many synagogues and helping to frame each day’s prayers.
The early 20th-century sage Barukh Halevi Epstein discusses this issue in his commentary on the prayerbook, Barukh She-Amar. Epstein notes that there is certainly no lack of statements in the Torah and the rest of the Bible, spoken in the name of righteous people, that are equally laudatory of the people of Israel and their dwelling-places. At first glance, it seems surprising that words that emerged from the mouth of one who hated the people of Israel are given the privileged position of opening the daily service.
But Epstein concludes that it is an erroneous assumption to believe that Jewish liturgical and legal texts will try to avoid drawing upon the statements of enemies of our people. On the contrary; Epstein provides numerous examples of Jewish prayers, laws, and customs which are derived from the words and actions of wicked people in the Torah. For example, the traditional blessing given to a bride immediately before the wedding, “Our daughter, may you become thousands of myriads,” is first found in the Torah as a direct quotation of Rebekah’s father and brother, Betuel and Laban, both of whom are painted as particularly negative characters in the Torah and in rabbinic literature. Similarly, a number of Jewish laws and traditions related to marriage are derived directly from the statements and actions of Laban (now in his position as Jacob’s father-in-law), one of the most negative characters in the book of Genesis. Epstein also lists ten legal discussions in the Talmud on which the words of Balaam are deemed to shed light.
Thus Mah Tovu is certainly not the only case in which we find the words of an enemy of the Jewish people sanctified and incorporated into our sacred texts. Epstein concludes that it makes no difference in Jewish tradition that these words, prayers, and teachings have their origin in the mouths of those who sought to destroy our people. If the words are words of truth, they are to be adopted, whatever their source.
Epstein’s comments carry a significant message for our contemporary world. We are often quick to judge a statement, not primarily based on its own merits, but primarily by its source. The credibility of an opinion often has more to do with who said it than with its content.
Certainly, the reputation of the speaker is one of the factors we use when we determine the value of a statement. And sometimes we can only fully understand a statement when we know who said it (and sometimes, knowing the source leads us to realize that a statement that had seemed innocuous is actually insidious when read in the context of other statements by that speaker.) These concerns notwithstanding: in the realms of politics, communal planning, or Jewish law and tradition, excessive reliance upon the authority of particular speakers — unaccompanied by a rigorous analysis of the contents of their statements — can lead us to become lazy and imprecise in our own thinking and decision-making. In fact, the excessive partisanship we are experiencing in the United States and in Israel results in part from a refusal of many people to even consider that their political adversaries will ever communicate anything of value.
Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches us that the truly wise person is ha-lomed mikol adam, the one with enough courage to learn something from each and every person — the one who is willing to seek out unconventional sources of wisdom. And this is the courage we must demonstrate, for the sake of our tents and dwelling-places.